Well-financed foes give Michigan Supreme Court justices a fight

Republican-endorsed Justices Kurtis Wilder and Beth Clement face well-financed Democratic opponents in a Michigan Supreme Court race that has not generated the high-profile outside attack ads of past campaigns. 

Sam Bagenstos, from top-left, Megan Cavanagh, Kurtis Wilder, lower-left, and Elizabeth Clement.

The campaign was roiled in early August when the state's high court ruled 4-3 to let Proposal 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot, despite arguments from Republican officials and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce that it would change too many parts of the Michigan Constitution and should be subject to a constitutional convention.

The plan would create a redistricting commission to draw political boundaries instead of the party in power, which has been the GOP for the past two decades.

Clement was booed at the Republican nominating convention later that month and told The Detroit News editorial board that unnamed "special interests" attempted to coerce her into supporting the GOP-leaning business groups who challenged Proposal 2 in court. Her name has not appeared on certain Republican Party circulars urging party members' votes on absentee ballots, while Wilder's name has.

The Democratic-nominated candidates in this non-partisan race have tried to take advantage and have raised competitive amounts of money.

Sam Bagenstos, a Democratic nominee and University of Michigan law professor, was the top fundraiser through July 21. He had received more than $791,000 contributions for the cycle and had more than $500,000 in cash reserves heading into the final weeks of the election. Megan Cavanagh, an appellate attorney, had raised roughly $406,000 and had $308,000 left in her campaign coffers. 

Clement, who is completing a term for now-6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Joan Larsen, has been the strongest fundraiser among Republicans, who are likely to enjoy the benefit of being designated as incumbents on the ballot. She had pulled in $555,490 in contributions as of July 21 and had roughly $101,000 in cash reserves.

Wilder, who is completing the term for retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., had raised $468,000 and a cash balance of more than $186,000. 

Those numbers are on pace with 2016, when Republican incumbents David Viviano and Joan Larsen reported $501,000 and $543,000 in contributions, respectively, by the same point. That race was also marked by outside spending from groups that pumped “dark money” into television ads, with half of the $3.4 million spent coming from sources that were required to disclose their own donors to the state. 

Justices serve eight-year terms and are paid $164,610 annually.

Natural Law Party nominee Doug Dern and Libertarian nominee Kerry Lee Morgan also are running.

Clement is stressing her "vast experience," which has included stints as a family law attorney, work in the Legislature and as chief legal counsel to Snyder. She said the court should be a forum of fairness where justices are politically impartial and base their decisions on the merits of a case.

Justices should not "legislate from the bench," said Clement, who was appointed 11 months ago by Snyder. 

"I think I have shown that i value the independence of the judiciary and the job that judges are required to do," she said. "...The voters can have confidence that if they vote for me and keep me on the Michigan Supreme Court that I will continue to treat everyone fairly and continue to be an independent justice upholding the rule of law." 

By contrast, Bagenstos argues the 5-2 Republican majority on the high court has protected certain interest groups at the expense of everyday victims. He said he has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Michigan Supreme Court has "become an institution that protects the interests of big corporations over those of the people," said Bagenstos, the civil rights lawyer who has assisted Flint residents in suing government officials for redress in the city's lead contamination crisis.

"It is crucial to elect justices with a record of representing real people," said the 48-year-old lawyer, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Wilder, an African-American and the only racial minority in the race, is emphasizing his experience as a Michigan Court of Appeals judge for 18 years and former Washtenaw County chief judge and trial judge. He also said he handled local, state and federal cases as a trial lawyer, including those dealing with employment discrimination and no-fault auto insurance. 

"I bring a breath of experience that nobody else can bring," Wilder said.

The justice got a boost Tuesday when he was endorsed by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a Democrat.

"I have known Justice Wilder for a number of years as both a lawyer and a judge. While I haven't agreed with every one of his decisions, including his recent vote on redistricting, I feel that Justice Wilder deserves to be returned to the state’s highest court," she said in a statement released by Wilder's campaign.

"In addition to my strong confidence in Justice Wilder's ability to be fair, I am most impressed with his continuous stand for equal justice under the law and the protection of crime victims' rights."

Cavanaugh, a member of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, says she is running for a seat on the state's high court because she believes "our justice system, the Supreme Court in particular, should preserve, promote and protect the rights of all litigants and citizens on a fair and unbiased basis."

There is a need to reform the criminal justice system in Michigan, particularly the juvenile justice system, she said. The high court could play a vital role in the reforms, said Cavanagh, who is a shareholder at the Detroit law firm of Garan Lucow Miller P.C.

"The (Michigan) Supreme Court should be an active participant in discussions with the other stakeholders in the criminal justice system, including justices, court administrators, police departments, prosecutors, defense attorneys," said Cavanagh, whose father Michael was a state Supreme Court justice for 32 years.

Dern, a bankruptcy and criminal attorney in Hartland, said he would add a different perspective to the court because he's "a lawyer out there every day that sees real injustice.”

Morgan, a private practice attorney in Wyandotte, said he wants to bring more respect for the written law and Constitution to the bench.

"Restoring the Constitutionally guaranteed protections of individual rights against state, local and judicial infringement and alienation, should be the (Michigan Supreme) Court's top priority," he said.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed


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